By Dan Nienaber
Free Press Staff Writer
MANKATO — A 30-year-tradition that pairs police officers, and now other heroes in uniform, with underprivileged kids for a holiday shopping spree will continue this weekend.
The Shop with a Hero program has always been a way for Mankato Department of Public Safety police officers and firefighters to interact positively with children in need. They received assistance from the Salvation Army to find 20-25 kids to meet them at Walmart Saturday morning to do some holiday shopping.
Donations are from Walmart, Mayo Clinic Health Systems-Mankato, the Fraternal Order of Police Lodge #16 and the Highland Park Neighborhood Association. Mankato area residents have also donated in the past and are welcome to do so this year by calling 387-8770.
“It’s something a lot of people feel very passionate about,” said Det. Cmdr. Matt DuRose.
“It’s a chance for them to see we’re human just like everyone else.”
Officers and firefighters use gift cards that are purchased with donated money to help their young partners find gifts for their families. Once that shopping’s done, the kids are encouraged to find something, or even a few things, for themselves. It’s not uncommon for officers and firefighters to open their own wallets to make sure their new friends leave happy.
They always get something in return, said Cmdr. Amy Vokal. Spending time with children in need is fulfilling because it’s clear that the effort is appreciated by both the kids and their parents.
Much of the fun is in the process of shopping. The kids get a kick out watching an officer try out a bike, Vokal said. They also enjoy getting tips about what their parents and siblings might want. Some kids take the shopping very seriously, spending a lot of time finding that perfect gift for themselves and others. Some kids know exactly what they want.
“It’s that kind of connection you make that’s priceless,” Vokal said. “It’s very rewarding. It’s just two people getting together and having a really good time.”